Archive for June, 2010

Time to face up to the task of grading St. Albert’s city councillors

Your columnist, with St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse at the St. Albert Public Library.

This column appeared in today’s issue of the Saint City News. Some readers may think my assessments of council were too kind … or too mean. Click here to give your own marks by filling out the City Council Report Card survey.

St. Albertans only get once chance to grade their city politicians. It’s a pass-fail system that happens only once every three years. In preparation for that day, on Oct. 18 this year, here are my grades for St. Albert’s current council crop:

Mayor Nolan Crouse – A-

Nolan, 56, probably works harder than all the mayors in Western Canada. There’s no event that might be attended by St. Albert voters at which the Hizzoner does not turn up. He tries hard on our behalf to lobby provincial politicians, businesses and others who affect our lives and taxes. He communicates his agenda clearly, which is good news, even if you disagree with him. He speaks well and says nothing to embarrass us. Increasingly, however, he is cranky with council and staff behind closed doors. Many perceive him as too close to a city administration that has its own agenda. This is unfair – he has one of the sharpest minds, and tongues, on council when it comes to dissecting administration reports. But this perception needs attention if Nolan is to get an A!

Councillor Len Bracko – C

Len, 66, is the very model of the post-modern city councillor by merit of having been around so long and done so much. Alas, he’s slowed down too much lately, and his profile has receded – though never so far that he slips into the name-recognition danger zone. Len always makes the effort to ask a question, but it’s seldom very penetrating nowadays. He is more persuasive face to face than in groups. Still, one senses the penny hasn’t dropped for Len that the world changed for most of us when Alberta’s economic boom went bust.

Councillor James Burrows – B-

James, 46, works hard for his part-time councillor’s salary. He also works hard to boost his own profile: he’s brash to the point of grandstanding. He’s ambitious, trying hard to set himself apart from other local politicians by proposing original, even unusual, solutions to our problems – though not necessarily good ones. Say, like plunking an industrial park in the middle of a watershed. He can turn on a dime – and sometimes does when he shouldn’t. His meeting preparation can seem slapdash. He will push back if he’s not getting his way. B is for brass.

Councillor Gareth Jones – B+

Gareth, 70, has built himself a reputation as the councillor who does the math and speaks up to question expenditures. Every council needs a representative like this. He does his homework before council meetings, and the administration seldom slips one past him. But does he always follow through? Where the rubber hits the road – say, articulating the views of ratepayers who don’t understand the city manager’s generous raise – he sounds much the same as all the others.

Councillor Roger Lemieux – B-

Roger, 62, is a nice guy who usually plays well with others on council. He’s smart, too, and has the common sense that comes from building his own successful business. He’s lived here since he was a kid and has a good record of volunteer public service. For these reasons, his re-election is a shoo-in. However, people who know him well complain he can be prickly. And while he tries to put pressure on the administration behind the scenes, his public profile is so low most St. Albertans couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup. Roger’s mark would improve if he’d speak up for taxpayers outside class.

Councillor Lorie Garrity – C-

Lorie, 61, is an intelligent person who has contributed a lot. A former schoolteacher and principal, he is remembered fondly by many former students, a big asset on voting day. But he’s no firecracker on council, and occasionally seems dismissive of voters’ concerns about their taxes. Maybe because he’s a former school administrator, he seems too inclined to see things the city administration’s way. His profile is low, and one can’t help wondering if he’s losing interest.

Councillor Carol Watamaniuk – B-

Carol, 65, is one of St. Albert’s great characters. Unfortunately, she is often a single-issue politician, interested principally the arts community, for which she has done great things. Arts and heritage are important, and a good balance for the usual sports focus of municipal politicians, but do they belong on her personal radar screen at every council meeting? Residents concerned about taxes criticize her for not much caring about the impact of her initiatives. Often overlooked is the fact she has the best record on council on environmental issues. Think of her every time you see a bike rack on a bus. Carol says she intends to retire at the end of this term.

NOTE: In any municipality, feelings pro and con about municipal politicians run strong. I encourage comments on this blog. But please keep ’em civil. Comments that I feel are defamatory in the legal sense, or merely abusive, will not be permitted. I have old-fashioned attitudes about this, so my tolerance levels are pretty low.

Danielle Smith’s success now hinges on policies adopted by Wildrose convention

Too many bumper stickers like these in the Capri Hotel parking lot in Red Deer tomorrow could bode ill for Danielle Smith and Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance Party.

Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance Party faces its most crucial test tomorrow and Saturday in its quest to become a serious alternative to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government.

Over the past few months, Ms. Smith has revealed she has talent as a populist politician of the Prairie right. With a little help from a few well-heeled friends and some smart former Reform Party strategists, the former journalist has brought the Wildrose Alliance from an easy-to-ignore fringe party of the lunatic right to a potential challenger being considered by large numbers of Alberta voters.

She was aided in this effort, of course, by Premier Stelmach’s accident-prone leadership, by fed-up Conservative backbenchers prepared to cross the floor to the opposition benches, by the stumblebum performance of the province’s Liberal Official Opposition under Leader David Swann, and by the free ride given right-wing politicians by Alberta’s mainstream media.

While none of this should diminish Ms. Smith’s remarkable accomplishment to date, it is not enough to win power for the Wildrose Alliance now or in the future because of a peculiarity of Alberta voters:

Unlike the citizens of every other province in Canada, Albertans arguably vote governments in, instead of voting them out.

If Ms. Smith truly expects to become the premier of Alberta, she is going to have to give voters a reason to vote for her and her party. She’ll have to prove, in other words, that the Wildrose Alliance is a better alternative than the Stelmach Tories. The fact Albertans are fed up with Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives will not be enough on its own to persuade them to vote for someone else.

To do that, Ms. Smith must achieve three things at the Wildrose Alliance’s crucial policy convention in Red Deer tomorrow and Saturday:

  1. She must put on a bravura performance.
  2. Her convention must be entertaining and well run.
  3. The policy package passed by delegates must not be so radical it frightens cautious Alberta voters.

The first two are easy, and will almost certainly come to pass. Ms. Smith would not be where she is now if she were not a talented stage performer. Her performance will have star quality unmatchable by Messrs. Stelmach or Swann.

Likewise, the convention is sure to be a good show, capable of proving to Albertans that the Wildrose Alliance is able at least to organize a big meeting without messing up.

But getting delegates to pass the policy package the party needs to become a credible alternative in the minds of Alberta voters, who are conservative in every sense of the word, will be another matter entirely.

To be blunt about this, the Wildrose Alliance has a higher percentage of far-right wingnuts than other Alberta political parties. The members of this tinfoil hat brigade are going to try to assert themselves at this policy conference. Indeed, many of them see it as their last chance to keep their Alliance on the straight and narrow ideological path they prefer.

Look no further than the policies put forward by members for consideration in Red Deer for proof of this assertion. Fully a third of the policies submitted by members are pure nuttiness, guaranteed to make the party look as if it is still in the hands of extremists.

Members of Ms. Smith’s inner circle privately cringe at the thought the old loony fringe might hijack the convention and pass a resolution calling for direct election of the premier, more health care privatization, or, as the Alberta media has finally noticed, a provincial constitution that guarantees the right of Albertans to bear arms.

This could easily happen. To see how likely it is, just count the number of battered pickup trucks with “Free the West” bumper stickers in the parking lot of Red Deer’s Capri Hotel tonight!

If it does happen, Ms. Smith and the party’s Legislative caucus of course would be under no obligation to actually push for any such thing. But they know that acknowledging this uncomfortable fact could alienate their true believers, whose votes will be precious in a tight election.

They also know that failing to acknowledge it could send mainstream voters streaming back to the Conservatives, with or without Mr. Stelmach at the helm.

This dilemma means that a week from now, Ms. Smith could be well on her way to becoming Alberta’s first woman premier. Or, about as likely, she may already be on her way into history alongside the likes of Nancy MacBeth and Pam Barrett – talented female political leaders from Alberta who thanks to errors, bad luck and old-fashioned prejudice against women in politics were unable to lead their parties where they hoped to take them.

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How can a Canadian summit cost taxpayers 66 times more per day for security than the FIFA World Cup?

FIFA World Cup security: A bargain at $10 million a day.

Remember the successive scandals about $640 toilet seats, $7,600 coffee pots and $436 hammers made for the U.S. armed forces?

The simple explanation is usually the right one, so the smart money’s always been on the bet that by over-budgeting for tens of thousands for simple items like these, the U.S. armed forces padded their top-secret budgets, creating fiscal space that could be inhabited by expensive “black projects,” “special weapons skunkworks” and the like.

Now, about that $5.5-million fence in Toronto. … You know, the one that shuts 5.5 million Torontonians out of their own city. The one that’s only six kilometres long.

Seriously, do you really believe it cost the taxpayers of Canada $5.5 million for six kilometres of chain link fence? If that were true, maybe $2 billion for security at the prime minister’s G8/G20 bunfest – including the cost of fake Lake Stephen Harper – might actually make some sense. But then again, maybe not…

But do you believe that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives actually managed to spend $2 billion to buy three days of security? If you do, there are nice bridges all over this country that aren’t yet owned by P3s in which you may want to invest.

Even the odious National Post, which loves all things Harperite, doesn’t believe the government on this one, pointing out that the security bill for the G20 gabfest in Pittsburgh last fall was a modest $18 million, while security for a similar G20 gathering in London last spring only ran up a $20 million tab. Even a steady flow of pork for Industry Minister Tony Clement’s Parry Sound-Muskoka riding hardly explains the difference.

Just to keep things current, consider this comparison: Security for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa is reported to have an estimated $313 million US price tag. That involves the use of 44,000 paramilitary police – more than double the size of the entire regular membership of that other well-known paramilitary organization, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Plus, it includes armed escorts for all soccer players.

And remember, the FIFA world cup runs for a month, from June 11 to July 11. Mr. Harper’s G8/G20 beanfest, by comparison, runs for three days, generously interpreted.

Oh yeah, and the FIFA World Cup is taking place in Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous cities on earth, whereas the G8/G20 extravaganza is taking place in … uh … Toronto. Or have the citizens of Toronto the Good turned into rampaging mobs of rabid soccer hooligans without the rest of us Canadians noticing?

Now, since the U.S. and Canadian dollars are roughly at par, let’s round the cost of a month of World Cup security off to $320 million Canadian, which is, as they used to say, “close enough for government work.”

So, just on the face of it, it’s costing well over six times as much for Canadian officials to provide security for a much smaller, shorter and tactically easier-to-secure event. (If you know anything about security matters, you’ll know that a chain link fence doesn’t buy much real security from determined foes with firearms, mortar bombs and the like. It does, however, keep protesters out of range of the TV cameras, which one suspects is the true objective in the Canadian case.)

Even when you consider the total cost of the World Cup, estimated at $3.7 billion to $5 billion, it sounds like a much better deal than Mr. Harper’s weenie roast for the international predator class. At least there are some tourist spin-offs, and a boost for the world vuvuzela trade.

Regardless of that, when the time factor is considered, the security cost comparison numbers are actually much worse. The South Africans are providing security at a cost of a little more than $10 million a day – or more than 66 times cheaper than the Canadian daily cost.

Maybe one question we Canadian taxpayers should be asking is, Are the South African intelligence and security services really that much more efficient than their Canadian counterparts? (If they are, perhaps we should be outsourcing this function! There are lots of options for this, as both the British and U.S. daily security costs in London and Pittsburgh were very comparable.)

But the real question we should ask, of course, is this: When Mr. Harper’s Conservatives are done paying the true cost of summit security, what do they plan to do with the rest of the money?

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Do they stay or do they go? Honorifics stay

Back in mid-May, I asked readers what they thought of my use on this blog of honorifics – Dr., Mr., Ms. and the like.

I asked: Should they stay or should they go?

To tell the truth, I expected readers to say, to heck with ’em. However, this was not to be.

Alberta Diary’s readers have spoken unequivocally: 66 per cent of them (47 votes) want honorifics to remain; only 33 per cent (24 votes) said drop them.

And so it shall be: the honorifics stay.

As they say on the Internet, thanks for your interactivity!

A question for the Alberta oilpatch: If the market’s so great, what’s wrong with the market?

Why the Alberta oilpatch is smiling: “The world owes me a livin’ … the taxpayers of Alberta do, anyway!”


If the market’s so great, what’s wrong with the market?

Let’s put this question another way: If free markets regulate everything so wonderfully, why are the market fundamentalists who inhabit Alberta’s oilpatch gushing with praise for the Alberta government’s new “incentives” to oil and gas drilling companies? After all, their principal effect seems to be to distort the market!

Remember, these are the guys who are generously donating to the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party on account of their generally held view that Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government isn’t nearly fundamentalist enough when it comes to the almighty market. Indeed, to hear some of them talk, you’d almost think Mr. Stelmach was turning into a socialist.

Or so they say to the rest of us. The reality, of course, is quite different. The reality, indeed, is nicely reflected in the headline on the recent Calgary Herald story about the Alberta government’s bizarrely generous drilling incentives: “Alberta oilpatch takes liking to royalty ‘gravy’.”

Yes, it’s about the gravy, stupid!

However, just as you always suspected, you won’t be getting to share the sauce. It turns out, in fact, that Premier Stelmach is a socialist of sorts. But his brand of socialism is only extended to his pals in the oilpatch, a few rich farmers and other traditional supporters of Conservative policies. It’s market fundamentalism for the rest of us.

The new drilling incentives the oil and gas drillers were cheering about were part of Mr. Stelmach’s embarrassingly swift retreat from his pitifully short-lived attempt to impose a modest royalty increase on the companies that extract oil and gas in Alberta.

When Mr. Stelmach eased royalties upward after he became premier, the oilpatch immediately threw a massive tantrum, threatened a capital strike and began funding the Wildrose Alliance, which is said now to have about $1.1 million in its election coffers.

In order to get the oilpatch to behave itself – that is, to return to funding the Tories as God Himself presumably intended – Mr. Stelmach and Energy Minister Ron Liepert folded like a couple of cheap tents.

Instead of a modest increase in royalties, we got things like this scheme, guaranteed to make any self-respecting oilman grin. As one of them explained to the Herald: “The effect, depending on the price of natural gas and depth of the well, gives us on the low side $2 million and the high side $3 million of royalty credits per well.”

Is that not clear enough? Well, don’t forget that the price of natural gas hit a seven-year-low last year and remains in the toilet.

So here’s Jim Riddell, president and chief operating officer of Paramount Resources, who told the Herald his company “is drilling 16 coal-bed methane wells this year, but it doesn’t plan to actually produce any gas.” (Emphasis added.)

Now, never mind the environmental questions about dubious coal-bed methane extraction techniques. “So why drill them?” the Herald asked Mr. Riddell. “‘These 750-metre wells are generally drilled in a day,’ he responded. ‘They cost about $150,000. So … the $200-a-metre Alberta credit we receive for drilling is equal to the cost of the well.’”

So, in case you were wondering, that’s how the almighty market works here in Alberta. The government pays drilling companies to extract a natural product for which there is insufficient market demand, damaging the environment along the way.

The oil companies then take some of the profits generated or freed up elsewhere by these expensive, market-distorting Conservative subsidies and give them to the Wildrose Alliance in the hopes they will soon have the opportunity to enact policies that are more, uh, market friendly…

What’s wrong with this picture of your tax dollars at work?

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Who’re ya gonna call? Gritbusters!

That Grit TV ad – needs busting, right now! Below right: Goodale, then Clark.

Are taxpayers screaming at you because summit security is costing them $1 billion a day?

Does threatening talk of a Liberal-NDP coalition just refuse to go away? And are ordinary voters telling pollsters they like the idea?

Are you worried what the Auditor General’s examination of your MPs’ expense accounts might reveal?

Have you just fired a minister because her husband, fresh from wiggling off the hook for drunk driving and drugs possession, was hanging around with unsavoury characters and saying something about his past friendship with you?

Has your fake lake leaked $2 million worth of red ink? Worse, have the Liberals made a funny TV ad about it?

Who’s a prime minister gonna call? Why, Gritbusters, of course!

Gritbusters, otherwise known as trusty Horsemen of the RCMP: They’re not much for getting their man nowadays, it would seem, unless he’s cowering in a corner at an airport or a jail cell. But they sure can be depended upon to always get their Grit if he happens to pose a danger to a Conservative politician anywhere. All you gotta do is pick up the prime ministerial hot line and dial Tory 9-1-1.

So, back in the day when the Horsemen were supposedly mounting a criminal investigation of a leak of income trust information during the 2006 federal election campaign, then RCMP Commissioner Dudley Zaccardelli made sure that the press release named Liberal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

The Mounties’ toothless complaints commissioner later admitted this was “not in keeping with past practice” – which I guess in laymen’s terms means it was malicious politically motivated horse-pucky without a whiff of justification. But, hey, who knew?

So, reported the Globe and Mail, way back in the mists of forgettable time, “polling numbers from late 2005 and early 2006 show what the complaints commissioner described as a ‘dramatic shift’ of support from the ruling Liberals to the Conservatives consistent with the timing of the RCMP disclosures on the income trust file.”

The rest, as they say, was history. Unfortunately, it was our history.

This service isn’t just available to Conservative prime ministers, of course. It’s also there for other brands of neo-liberals, say Left Coast Liberals who happen to be having trouble with popular Knee-Dipper premiers.

Alert readers will remember how, back in 1999, the Mounties turned up on NDP Premier Glen Clark’s East Vancouver doorstep with a search warrant and a BCTV television crew? (The BCTV reporter insisted he was just playing a hunch. Good one!)

Of course, once it got to court, that one turned out to be a load of hooey too.

Well, here we are, it’s June of 2010 and our Conservative prime minister has been having the bad time described above. And what happens?

This just in! Why, the RCMP has “laid out its first allegations of bribery in the sponsorship scandal, stating in a court document that an advertising firm offered kickbacks to long-time bureaucrat Chuck Guité….”

Or so the Globe and Mail reported Tuesday evening. You can expect this story on the paper’s front page today, the word “Liberal” prominent in the headline.

By gosh, the information came from “a previously undisclosed search warrant!” No point wondering who did the disclosing, or why now – a mere decade or so after the events supposedly took place?

Website comments were disconnected by the Globe. “We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons,” our supposed national newspaper intoned last night. “We appreciate your understanding.”

We may understand it at that. Things must be worse than we’d thought for the prime minister if he’s already had to call in the Gritbusters.

One wonders what’s expected in the news next week.

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Ed Stelmach: Nuts? Or what?

Above: Electricity ‘deregulation’ in Alberta. Below: Ed Stelmach. Below him: A Bond-like Peter Lougheed.

Is Ed Stelmach nuts? Or is he smarter than the rest of us put together?

There’s evidence for both propositions.

When Mr. Stelmach was chosen in November 2006 by Alberta Progressive Conservative Party members as their leader, and hence as the premier of Alberta, the smart money was on him holding a snap election and getting himself a safe mandate quickly. Even the great Peter Lougheed, patron saint of Alberta airline takeovers and rural hospitals, is said to have whispered in his ear that there would never be a better time to capture a majority than right now.

Ed Stelmach knew better. He waited until March 2008 to hold an election, when public opinion polls said Albertans were growing sick and tired of both the man and his government. Everyone who was anything in Alberta politics thought he was nuts.

He captured 72 out of 83 seats in the Legislature in the March 3, 2008, election.

Mr. Stelmach’s leadership in 2009 was a gong show. Pretty much anything that could go wrong did. His health minister stumbled from disaster to catastrophe. Well-heeled seniors booed his MLAs in safe Tory ridings. His communications brain trust couldn’t tell the difference between Alberta and northern England. His polling numbers plunged.

So when his PCs’ mandatory leadership review approached in November 2009, everyone who was anything in Alberta politics figured he was in deep trouble. Dissident Tories yakked and yakked. Even his predecessor in the job, Ralph Klein, set the bar high and suggested that if he got less than a 70-per-cent mandate he should hang up his hat and spurs.

Ed Stelmach knew better. He captured 77.4 per cent support in the Nov. 7, 2009, vote.

Which brings us to the present. Mr. Stelmach’s polling numbers still aren’t all that hot – they suggest that if an election were held any time soon, which it won’t be, he’d hang on only to a razor thing majority and the right-wing Wildrose Alliance would form the opposition. Enough Liberals and New Democrats would be elected in the Edmonton area to make the provincial Legislature a busier and more interesting place.

What’s more, the trend line is not a promising one for Mr. Stelmach.

Yet with the Alliance policy convention less than two weeks away, presenting Mr. Stelmach’s right-leaning challenger with a chance for a bounce in the polls if it can find something good to talk about, the premier has chosen this moment to introduce a policy that will expose residential electricity consumers to Alberta’s volatile and expensive market for “deregulated” power.

The change means consumers will no longer be protected from huge spikes in Alberta’s already grossly overpriced and mismanaged electricity market. Judging from what the Albertan in the street has to say, this change is being greeted with cynicism and fear. Many see it as an effort to force consumers into disadvantageous long-term contracts with unscrupulous and barely regulated power suppliers. And that’s the feeling now, while the temperatures are warm and the sun is shining.

Wildrose Alliance partisans are already predicting in the media that “consumers who receive power bills in the $100 to $200 range could be jolted by one in the $500 range as a result of the change.”

Now, consider the timing. This is the summer of 2010. It’s reasonably safe, even for a political blogger, to predict that the temperatures will grow quite chilly here in Alberta during January and February 2011, and again in the next fall and winter.

If electricity prices spike during one of those cold periods, as also seems possible, surely Ed Stelmach will pay a political price if he calls an election as he insists he will in March 2012 – especially if some poor senior has frozen to death in her modest Edmonton bungalow the winter before.

Not that a real Conservative – or a real Wildroser, for that matter – would truly care. This is just the sort of thing that has to happen in a globalized economy, they would think in their more private moments. But such events have political consequences in the real world, surely even here in Alberta.

In other words, Ed Stelmach must be nuts to do this now! That’s what the proverbial person in the street seems to think, and it’s a good bet that everyone who is anything in Alberta politics is wondering the same thing too.

But just remember, Premier Stelmach has already concluded that he’s right and the rest of us are the ones who are nuts – and he figures he’s got the numbers to prove it.

The scary thing, in this crazy province, is that he could just be right!

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Boutilier is back and it’s likely bad news for Stelmach

Guy & Ed in happier times…

Heeeee’s baaaaaack!
Guy Boutilier is in the news again. This does not bode particularly well for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

Not quite a year ago, on July 17, 2009, Mr. Stelmach booted the Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA out of the Conservative caucus for the unpardonable sin of speaking up on behalf of his constituents. Mr. Boutilier’s specific crime was publicly complaining that his own government had broken a promise to build a seniors’ continuing care facility in boomtown Fort McMurray.

Mr. Boutilier was sent to Coventry – which in his case was a hastily renovated office on a low floor of the shabby Legislative Annex Building across the lawn from the Legislature in Edmonton. The huge Conservative majority ticked down a statistically insignificant one seat, to 71.

The premier’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, portraying Mr. Boutilier as isolated, selfish and arrogant, an angry wingnut throwing a tantrum because he hadn’t landed a cabinet post comparable to the important portfolios he had held in Ralph Klein’s day. Mr. Boutilier was also described as a whiner, desperate to be forgiven and readmitted to caucus – which the premier made clear would never happen.

Now, truth be told, Mr. Boutilier never looked that unhappy in his new digs. Indeed, to many of us he looked quite relaxed as he lived the quiet life of an independent MLA, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Anyway, before long he had company in his rundown corner of the Annex. On Sept. 14, 2009, he was joined by once and future MLA Paul Hinman, elected for the right-wing Wildrose Alliance in a by-election in Calgary-Glenmore. Tory majority: 70.

Then, on Jan. 4, 2010, they were joined by turncoat Tories Rob Anderson from Airdrie-Chestermere and Heather Forsyth from Calgary-Fish Creek, who had crossed the floor to join the upstart party. Tory majority: 68.

Now the auguries point to Mr. Boutilier joining his office-mates from the Wildrose Alliance just in time to give the right-wing party a boost a few days before its much-anticipated policy convention two weeks from now in Red Deer.

Yesterday, the well-connected author of a subscription-only Legislative tipsheet predicted that Mr. Boutilier was about to move back into the limelight. Paul McLoughlin’s Alberta Scan quoted Mr. Boutilier effusively complimenting Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, comparing her to Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein rolled into one. (For non-Albertans, this is akin to comparing a politician, say, to a combination of John A. MacDonald and Pierre Trudeau, with elements of St. Joan of Arc tossed in.)

A local newspaper quickly followed up with a blog post that said much the same thing. It had Mr. Boutilier cutely refusing to confirm he was about to join the Alliance, but doing everything else he could to add fuel to the fire of speculation.

Of course, in politics as in the dance of the thousand veils, timing is everything. If Ms. Smith and the Alliance time things just right, they can get a nice sense of momentum as they go into their convention from Mr. Boutilier signing up.

To credibly challenge the Conservatives, of course, the Alliance still needs to hold an entertaining convention and emerge with a policy platform that is not so crazily right-wing it spooks cautious Alberta voters. But Ms. Smith is a skilful politician, and her advisors are no dummies, so it seems plausible that they can achieve this goal.

Regardless, with Mr. Boutilier aboard, as soon as the convention excitement dies down the Wildrose Alliance will have sufficient seats in the Legislature to demand official party status from a reluctant Mr. Stelmach.

If the premier bobs and weaves and tries to deny them on a technicality, Ms. Smith and the Alliance will have a terrific stick to beat him with. If he gives up and comes across, they will have more money and a better platform from which to campaign against him. From Mr. Stelmach’s perspective, this is a classic lose-lose proposition.

And after that, who knows? Maybe some more defectors from the far right of the Conservative caucus. Tory majority: 67? 66?

For his part, of course, Mr. Boutilier will have the opportunity a year after his humiliation to savour the sweet taste of a little revenge – which, it’s worth remembering, is a dish best served cold.

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Full-time city councillors are bad, but part-time councillors are worse

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

Maybe the Saint City News was right, after all!

Back in 2007, the departing editor of the News wrote an editorial that argued it was going to take full-time jobs and professional salaries to attract candidates of the highest calibre to St. Albert city council.

I was a candidate for council at the time, and I wrote a cranky letter to the editor – quite well received by a number of voters – that scoffed at this proposition. I argued that one reason campaign budgets for full-time councillors in Edmonton and Calgary routinely top $50,000 is that the pay is too high.

“One effect of this is to eliminate many excellent and thoughtful candidates who do not have the personal wealth or the employment opportunity to be full-time politicians,” I wrote. “Another is to make corporate and organizational fund-raising — and the sense of obligation to donors that goes with it — a full-time necessity for all candidates, with a harmful impact on policy decisions. … Another is that taxpayers have to pay the freight for these expensive full-time elected officials.”

I suspect it was that last line that scored me the most points with voters.

I said then, as I still believe, that no observer of provincial and national politics in Canada can conclude that very high corporate-style political salaries encourage better people to run for office, or result in better public policy. I ended that letter, however, with the grudging concession reasonable full-time salaries for councillors in larger cities were “probably a necessary evil.”

Alas, grating as it may be to ratepayers who must pay top dollar for a service that brings them little joy, and as painful as it is to me to admit I was wrong, we have reached that point in St. Albert.

Now, I am not arguing that local politicians (or for that matter, senior city officials) in a community the size of St. Albert should be paid the extremely high salaries associated with the corporate sector. On the contrary, good people will come forward out of a sense of public service and work for reasonable pay.

But we do need something better than what we have now, which is a city government dominated by well off retired folk and business people who are insulated from the financial pressures faced by ordinary working people. The result is decision making that is too frequently also out of touch with the hard reality of what the people who live here can afford.

As things stand, virtually no one who holds a full-time job is able to run for city council in St. Albert. Council pay is too low to replace most people’s regular jobs, and the work is too demanding – and too important – to do as a hobby.

St. Albert’s current city council has made this situation worse by scheduling important council business at times when no working person can get away from their “day job.”

The solution, I’m afraid, isn’t more representation from groups who already dominate council. It’s the recognition, whether we like it or not, that being a councillor in a city as big as St. Albert is full-time work.

Does that mean we’d get some councillors who don’t deserve their full-time salaries? Of course! What else is new? But it also means we’d be opening the door to many people with energy, vision and common sense.

All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be running for city council in 2010. I like to think that I would have brought some of that common sense to council’s deliberations. But I’ve reached the unhappy conclusion that I just can’t do two full-time jobs properly without falling down on both. Neither can anyone else.

The good news from my perspective is that I can continue to write this column. Next time – now that readers know I’m not a candidate – I’ll start by grading our current city councillors.

That NDP-Liberal merger story: smoke from a smoke-making machine

Iggy and Jack: No merger, please, we’re Canadian!

All of a sudden there’s a lot of smoke billowing in the media about the possibility of a merger of the federal Liberals and New Democrats.

This raises the inevitable question: whatever can it mean?

One thing this story surely does not mean is that anyone in either party is seriously suggesting there should be a merger. Indeed, it’s possible that a clear majority of Canadian New Democrats would vote for any party other than the Liberals, especially the Liberals under an unreconstituted right-winger like Michael Ignatieff.

Surely similar numbers of Liberal party supporters would vote for the Conservatives before they’d support Jack Layton’s NDP, even if Jack’s daddy was a Liberal (not to mention a Tory) for a spell.

In fact, a telephone tracking poll in March by EKOS Research Associates showed only about a third of decided NDP and Liberal supporters nationwide who listed a second choice would vote for the other party if they couldn’t vote for their own. More than a quarter of the Liberal supporters polled listed Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives as their second choice! Given time to think about it, those results might even get worse from the perspective of a merged party.

So, to mix metaphors, that dog don’t hunt.

However, as the late American president John F. Kennedy wisely observed, “where there’s smoke, you’ll usually find somebody running a smoke-making machine.” So who is pumping up the smoke machine this week?

Well, sometime Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella, obviously, seeing as he’s the media’s go-to guy on this story, swearing affidavits and giving interviews right and left to say, yes, they really mean it, there really are “high level” talks about a merger – notwithstanding the fact that the leaders of both parties are in full denial mode, racing screaming for the exits.

But why? And why does the story have legs?

All this is pure speculation, of course, but surely it is not impossible that the idea is being kept alive by people in the Liberal Party who have grown disenchanted with Michael Ignatieff’s flagging faux Tory leadership?

After all, the idea of a merger would only make sense if the imagined new party had a more appealing leader than the gruesome Mr. Ignatieff. Consider that Angus Reid poll last month that suggested a Lib-Dipper coalition could only win with Mr. Layton in the lead. This can’t have thrilled too many Liberals.

By keeping speculation about a merger alive, Mr. Ignatieff’s intramural foes draw everyone’s attention to the increasingly obvious fact that what the Liberals really need is a leader with more political sex appeal.

Meantime, of course, the mainstream media’s incessant chatter about this non-story diverts attention from the bizarre fake lake brouhaha that dominated the previous news cycle to the embarrassment of the government – much to the relief of the media’s owners and their man at 24 Sussex Drive, no doubt.

Somewhere down the line – after a federal election – a Liberal NDP coalition might fly. But a merger? Never!

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